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Letters to the editor

How history was made up at Nalanda

The story behind a Marxist historian’s story of its destruction by ‘Hindu fanatics’.

Surely, no self-respecting Marxist could have made his account rest on not just one miracle — acquiring sidhis and raining fire on to the structures — but two, for we also have the streams of water running down from the scriptures. Surely, no self-respecting Marxist could have made his account rest on not just one miracle — acquiring sidhis and raining fire on to the structures — but two, for we also have the streams of water running down from the scriptures.

“The mine of learning, honoured Nalanda” — that is how the 16th-17th century Tibetan historian, Taranath, referred to the university at Nalanda. At the time I-tsing was at the university, there were 3,700 monks. The total complex had around 10,000 residents. The structures housing the university were as splendid and as extensive as the learning they housed. When excavations began, the principal mound alone was about 1,400 feet by 400 feet. Hieun Tsang recounts at least seven monasteries and eight halls. The monasteries were of several storeys, and there was a library complex of three buildings, one of them nine storeys high.

As the Islamic invaders advanced through Afghanistan and northwestern India, they exterminated Buddhist clergy, they pillaged and pulverised every Buddhist structure — the very word “but”, the idols they so feverishly destroyed, was derived from “Buddha”. Nalanda escaped their attention for a while — in part because it was not on the main routes. But soon enough, the marauders arrived, and struck the fatal blow. The ransacking is described in the contemporary Tabakat-i-Nasiri by Maulana Minhaj-ud-din.

Minhaj-ud-din rose and came to the notice of the rulers of the time — Qutb-ud-din Aibak and others — because of his raids and depredations, and because of the enormous booty he gathered, booty sufficient for him to set himself up as a plunderer in his own right. “His reputation reached Sultan (Malik) Qutb-ud-din, who despatched a robe of distinction to him, and showed him honour,” the historian writes. With its high wall, its large buildings, Nalanda seemed like a well-endowed fortress to Ikhtiyar-ud-din and his force. He advanced upon it with two hundred horsemen “and suddenly attacked the place”. Minhaj-ud-din continues,

“The greater number of inhabitants of that place were Brahmans, and the whole of those Brahmans had their heads shaven, and they were all slain. There were a great number of books there; and when all these books came under the observation of the Musalmans, they summoned a number of Hindus that they might give them information respecting the import of those books; but the whole of the Hindus had been killed. On being acquainted (with the contents of the books), it was found that the whole of that fortress and city was a college, and in the Hindu tongue, they call a college, Bihar [vihara].”

“When that victory was effected,” Minhaj-ud-din reports, “Muhammad-i-Bakhtiyar returned with great booty, and came to the presence of the beneficent sultan, Qutb-ud-din I-bak, and received great honour and distinction…” — so much so that other nobles at the court became jealous. All this happened around the year 1197 AD.

And now the Marxist account of the destruction of this jewel of knowledge. In 2004, D.N. Jha was the president of the Indian History Congress. In the presidential address he delivered — one to which we shall turn as an example of Marxist “scholarship” — this is the account he gives of the destruction of Buddhist viharas, and of Nalanda in particular:

“A Tibetan tradition has it that the Kalacuri King Karna (11th century) destroyed many Buddhist temples and monasteries in Magadha, and the Tibetan text  Pag Sam Jon Zang refers to the burning of the library of Nalanda by some ‘Hindu fanatics’.”

“Hindu fanatics”? The expression struck me as odd. A Tibetan text of the 18th century using so current an expression as “Hindu fanatics”? Especially so because, on Jha’s own reckoning, Hinduism is an invention of the British in the late 19th century? So, what is this “Tibetan text”? What does it say? Had Jha looked it up?

Pag Sam Jon Zang was written by Sumpa Khan-Po Yece Pal Jor. The author lived in 1704-88: that is, 500 years after the destruction of Nalanda.

That is the first thing that strikes one: our historian disregards the contemporaneous account, Tabakat-i-Nasiri, and opts for a text written 500 years after the event. But had he read the text at all? Could a self-respecting Marxist have at all believed what is written in it?

This is how Sarat Chandra Das, the translator and editor of Pag Sam Jon Zang, sets out the account of the destruction of Nalanda as given in this text:

“While a religious sermon was being delivered in the temple that he (Kakuta Sidha, a minister of a king of Magadha) had erected at Nalanda, a few young monks threw washing water at two Tirthika beggars. The beggars being angry, set fire on the three shrines of dharma ganja, the Buddhist university of Nalanda — that is, Ratna Sagara, Ratna Ranjaka including the nine-storey building called Ratnadadhi which contained the library of sacred books” (pg 92).

Two beggars could go from building to building of that huge campus and, with all the monks present, burn down the entire, huge, scattered complex?

And, the account of the relevant passage reproduced above is the one set out by Sarat Chandra Das in his Index. That is, it is just a summary of the actual passage — in an index, it scarcely could be more. What does the relevant section, and in particular the passage about the burning down of the library, say?

The author is giving an account of how Dharma has survived three rounds of destructive attempts. One round was occasioned by the fluctuating relations between Khunimamasta, a king of Taksig (Turkistan?), and Dharma Chandra, a king of Nyi-og in the east. The latter sends gifts. The former thinks these are part of black magic. He, therefore, swoops down from “dhurukha” and destroys “the three bases” of Magadha — monasteries, scriptures and stupas. Khunimamasta drives out and exiles the monks. Dharma Chandra’s uncle sends many scholars to China to spread the teaching. He receives gold as thanksgiving. He uses this and other gifts to appease rulers of smaller kingdoms to join the fight against the king of Taksig (Turkistan?). The uncle thereafter revives “the three bases”. Almost all the shrines are restored and 84 new ones are built. And so, the dharma survives.

In the next round, “the teacher who taught prajnaparamita for 20 years is assassinated by burglars from dhurukha. His blood turned into milk and many flowers emerged from his body. (Thus) he flew into the sky.”

We now come to the crucial passage, the one that Jha has ostensibly invoked. I reproduce the translation of it by Geshe Dorji Damdul in full:

“Again at that time, there was a scholar by the name Mutita Bhadra, who was greatly involved in renovating and building stupas. Eventually he had a vision of Bodhisattva Samantabhadra. He flew to Liyul by holding the garment (of Bodhisattva Samantabhadra) and there he made great contributions to the welfare of sentient beings and the Dharma. Reviving the Dharma that way, the Dharma flourished for 40 years in the Central Land (Magadha?). At that time, during the celebration over the construction of a shrine in Nalanda by Kakutasita, a minister of the king, some naughty novice monks splashed (dish) washing water on two non-Buddhist beggars and also pressed (the two) in-between the door and (the door frame.) Angry over these gestures, one (beggar) served as the attendant to the other who sat in a deep pit for 12 years to gain the sidhi of the sun. Having achieved the sidhi, they threw ashes of a fire puja (havan) they did, on 84 Buddhist shrines. They were all burned. Particularly, when the three dharma ganja of Nalanda — the shrines which sheltered the scriptures — as well got consumed in fire, streams of water ran down from the scriptures of Guhyasamaja and Prajnaparamita, which were housed in the ninth storey of the Ratnadhati shrine. This saved many scriptures. Later, fearing penalty from the king, the two (beggars) escaped to Hasama in the north. However, the two died due to immolation, which happened on its own.”

Surely, no self-respecting Marxist could have made his account rest on not just one miracle — acquiring sidhis and raining fire on to the structures — but two, for we also have the streams of water running down from the scriptures.

But we strain unnecessarily. There is a clue in Jha’s lecture itself. He doesn’t cite the Tibetan text, he does what Marxists do: he cites another Marxist citing the Tibetan text! To see what he does, you must read the lines carefully. This is what we saw Jha saying:

“A Tibetan tradition has it that the Kalacuri King Karna (11th century) destroyed many Buddhist temples and monasteries in Magadha, and the Tibetan text Pag Sam Jon Zang refers to the burning of the library of Nalanda by some ‘Hindu fanatics’.”

As his authority, Jha cites a book by B.N.S. Yadava, Society and Culture in Northern India in the Twelfth Century. What did Yadava himself write? Here it is: “Further, the Tibetan tradition informs us that Kalacuri Karna (11th century) destroyed many Buddhist temples and monasteries in Magadha.”

Jha has clearly lifted what Yadava wrote word for word — at least he has been faithful to his source. But in the very next sentence, Yadava had gone on to say: “It is very difficult to say anything as to how far this account may be correct.”

Words that Jha conveniently left out!

Yadava had continued, “However, we get some other references to persecution.”

He cited two inscriptions and a Puranic reference. And then came to the Tibetan text. Recall what Jha wrote about this text: “…and the Tibetan text Pag Sam Jon Zang refers to the burning of the library of Nalanda by some ‘Hindu fanatics’.”

And now turn to what Yadava wrote about this very text: “The Tibetan text Pag Sam Jon Zang contains a [I am leaving out a word] tradition of the burning of the library of Nalanda by some Hindu fanatics.”

Close enough to pass for plagiarism? But wait, there is originality! Notice, first, that two Hindu beggars have become “Hindu fanatics”. Notice, next, that the words “Hindu fanatics” that Jha had put in quotation marks as if they were the words that the author of the Tibetan text had used to describe the arsonists, were actually the words of his fellow Marxist, Yadava. But the best clue is the word that I omitted from what Yadava had actually written. Yadava’s full sentence was as follows: “The Tibetan text Pag Sam Jon Zang contains a doubtful tradition of the burning of the library of Nalanda by some Hindu fanatics.”

Just as he had left out the words, “It is very difficult to say anything as to how far this account may be correct,” Jha now leaves out the word “doubtful”. And all this in the presidential address to the Indian History Congress.

In a word, l There is a Tibetan text written five hundred years after the destruction of Nalanda l Sarat Chandra Das annotates it, and includes in his Index a summary in English of a passage in the text

— the summary naturally leaves out telling components of the original passage

l Yadava looks only at the summary in the Index — “non-Buddhist beggars” becomes “Hindu fanatics”

l Yadava notes that the account is based on a “doubtful tradition”

l Jha omits the word “doubtful”

l And we have a presidential address to the Indian History Congress!

Given what we have seen of Marxist historians even in this brief book, the brazen-faced distortions — to the point of falsehood — do not surprise me.

What does surprise me is that no one looked up either the source that Jha had cited or the text.

Indeed, in concluding his section, Yadava had stated:

“A great blow to Buddhism was, no doubt, rendered by the Turkish invasions, leading to the destruction and desertion of the celebrated Buddhist monasteries of Magadha and Bengal. Many Buddhist scholars fled to Tibet and Nepal.”

The writer, a former Rajya Sabha MP from the BJP, was Union minister for communications, information technology and disinvestment. This article has been excerpted from his book, ‘Eminent Historians: Their Technology, Their Line, Their Fraud’, published by HarperCollins India

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